Carey Nieuwhof - Burnout - ReThink Leadership 2016

How I Recovered From Burnout: 12 Keys to Getting Back

I had never been through anything quite as deep, or frankly, personally frightening as my burnout 10 years ago.

Burnout moves fatigue and the darkness from a place where it was in your control to place where you can simply no longer control either.

I’ve heard from more than a few of you who have let me know that you’re in the midst of burnout right now.

Gary summarized how many leaders feel when he wrote in this comment:
So I’m there now. If I were honest I would say my life and ministry are in shambles. Still going, but no one really knows except my wife, I am ready to quit.
Oh man. All I can say is I understand, and I’m pulling for you and praying for you. I told part of my story in this post along with sharing 9 signs you might be burning out.

So how do you recover from burnout?

Let me share my journey. While everyone’s recovery will be different, there were 12 keys that, in retrospect, were essential to my recovery.We need to learn these lessons on the right side of burn out.

Not an Instant Cure

And as far as time goes, for me there was no instant cure. It took about 6 months for me to move from ‘crisis’ (20% of normal) to operational (maybe 60%) It took another year to get from 60% to 80% of ‘normal’. Finally, it took another three or four years to finally feel 100% again – like myself. Even a new self.
12 Keys To Getting Back from Burnout

Along the way, these 12 things helped me immensely. And while your story might be different, I offer them in the hope they might help you even in some small way:

1. Tell someone

This was hard. I think it is for most leaders, especially guys. My guess is you will resist because of pride. But pride is probably what made you burn out. Don’t miss this: Only humility will get you out of what pride got you into. Swallow your pride and tell someone safe that you have a problem. It’s tough, but it’s the first step toward wellness. When you admit it to others, you also finally end up admitting to yourself.
2. Get help

You can’t do this alone. Really, you can’t. I went to a trained counselor and had a circle of friends who walked the walk with me. You need to talk to your doctor and to a trained Christian counselor. And you need others. I had people pray over me. My wife, Toni, was an incredible and exceptional rock. I’m not sure I would have made it without them. I’m a guy and I prefer to work through my own problems. This one was so much bigger than me. But not bigger than God or the community of love and support he provides. So get help.
3. Lean into your friends

Yes this could have been included in Point 2 but the guys would have missed it. Friends. You need them. Guys – word here. We tend not to have a lot of friends and we tend not to open up. Mistake. Lean into your friendships. Friends came to house and prayed for me. They called me. One day a friend called and simply said “I know you can’t feel it today, but the sun will rise again. It will.” I can’t tell you how much those words meant to me that day. Your friends care about you. Lean into them.
4. Keep leaning into God

Just because he seems silent doesn’t mean he’s absent. I did not feel God for months. Not when I prayed or read the bible or worshipped. But I didn’t give myself permission to quit. In these pivotal moments you will either lean away from God or into him. Lean in, hard. Even if you feel nothing. I did, and eventually, the feelings of intimacy return. Just because you can’t feel God’s love doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. Your emotions will eventually catch up to your obedience.
5. Rest

I was so physically and emotionally tired when I burnt out. I slept for about 10 hours a day for a month straight, adding naps to my daily diet on top of that. I think sleep is like money; deficits become debt. And debt needs to be paid off. I paid off my sleep debt that month and I always try now to make sure I am not running a deficit. If I do for a week or two, I pay it off with more sleep. You were designed to rest, and to rest in God. While I personally didn’t take a sabbatical or medical leave (our board offered me one), some may need to. I was too scared I’d never come back. So I took three weeks vacation and came back slowly.
6. Find something else to take your attention away from your pain

The problem with pain (or at least my pain) is when you do nothing you only have your pain to focus on. Distraction is a powerful tool to get your mind thinking about other things. Watch a movie. Go out for dinner. Go for a hike. Go to a party. Go to a concert. It’s not easy. At my worst, I would go to social settings and not want to talk to anyone, sometimes even ‘hiding’ from people behind my wife who is a foot shorter than me and 100 lbs lighter. But at least I went. One night we hosted a dinner party and I left the table early and ended up crying in my bedroom for the rest of the night. But at least we threw the party. It got my mind off the constant cycle of depression.
7. Do what you can

Again, you may need a long sabbatical. But I took three weeks off and went back to work. On my first week back in the office, it took my longer to write a three line email than it took me to write this entire blog post, but I focused on doing what I could. The first weekend I preached, those who knew the shape I was in all told me “We would have had no idea you were feeling so bad. You were amazing.” I knew how I felt inside, but it was good to know I could still be helpful to others in some way. I think for me it was important to discover what I could still do.
8. Don’t do anything drastic or stupid

Underline this. Because my illness involved my mind, I was tempted to do all kinds of things that could have ruined my life. I felt like abandoning my calling, running away from everyone I knew and everything I knew, even my wife and kids. In my worst moments, thoughts of ending it all crossed my mind. I am so thankful I didn’t succumb to any of those impulses. Some days I just said to myself “don’t do anything stupid today.” And if I didn’t, that was progress. I’m so thankful I didn’t do anything rash or irresponsible.
9. Trust again

One of the contributing factors to my crash was a few relationships (not my family) in which trust was broken. As hurt as I felt and as cynical as I was at points, I made a conscious decision to trust again. And the wonderful thing is: so many people are trustworthy. And God always is. Trusting again after your trust has been breached keeps your heart fresh and alive and – ultimately – hopeful again.
10. Closely monitor balance

I used to pride myself in being able to go at whatever I was doing longer and harder than anyone else. Pride’s not a good thing. I now closely monitor how I’m feeling, my rest and my balance between time with people and time alone. I’m hyper focused on it. Because I can’t afford not to be. I build margin into my schedule because without it, the edge of the next cliff is right around the corner.
11. Watch for the warning signs

I watch these 9 signs of burnout diligently. About a month ago I saw over half the warning signs creep back in. I told our elders immediately. I was two days into what I thought was a ‘mini burnout’, but I sounded the alarm bells. In the end, it turned out to be my frustration over a leadership issue that was producing the symptoms. As soon as I cracked the leadership issue, the symptoms disappeared almost overnight. But that kind of monitoring is for me central to staying healthy.
12. Take full responsibility for the health of your soul

Nobody else is responsible for your health. You are. Pray, read your bible, seek life giving friendships, replenish your energy, eat right, work out, love deeply. These things nourish your soul. If you don’t do them, nobody will.

Okay, I promised 12. But here’s a bonus tip. This one’s huge and you’ll be tempted to skip it.
13. Believe there’s hope

It took me almost 5 years to feel like ‘myself’ again (a new self for that matter). It was a long road back for me personally and I had to keep believing that God wasn’t done with me. 7 years later I’m so thankful. Our church has never been healthier or more effective. I am enjoying what I’m doing more than ever. And the opportunities before me have never been greater. How much of that could I see or imagine 7 years ago? Exactly 0%. But I had to not give up despite that. In those moments and days where I still don’t feel good, I cling to the hope that the sun will rise again. And it does.

So that’s my story.

I’m praying for you today and I hope that in some small way this helps those of you who are defeated, discouraged or believe it’s over.

It’s not. Our God still lives. And He loves you.
Here are some bullet point of what I learned as well...
  • Being a pastor made me a better Christian.
  • There were issues God wanted to deal with in me but I didn’t want to deal with in me.
  • I sent people to counseling. I didn’t go to counseling.
  • You need to work out. You need to eat properly. You need to sleep well.
  • You can be the smartest guy in the room but if you burn out, it’s game over.
  • Your church can always get a new pastor. But your spouse shouldn’t get a new partner. Your kids only have you.
  • God is going to build His church. You’re just going to forfeit your role in the story.
  • I have to live today that will help me thrive tomorrow.
  • The goal of leadership is not to survive. The goal of leadership is to help you thrive.
  •  The goal is for your heart to be more alive in your fourth decade of ministry than today.
  • You live with margin so you can live on mission.
  • If you’ve burned out, you lose all control.
  •  I spent August 2006 basically locked up in my room crying.
  • Ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. Life is a series of ungrieved losses.
  • If I get back to the way I was, I was going to get back to the way I was. I needed a new normal. "Am I living in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow?" If not, the journey back is short.
  •  I just think we’re all the same. We’re just people
  • Faced with significant disappointments in life and leadership, leaders face four options.
  • The majority of people who start in ministry don’t finish in ministry.
  •  Maybe your heart has gone out but calling has not gone out.
  • Don’t quit your job. Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t get a sports car.
  • You’ve seen your share of church leaders who are just on autopilot.
  • Leaders who thrive see life for what it actually is but keep their hearts fully engaged.
  • I want to be more fully at 50 than I was at 30 and 40.
  • Just because I had a relationship that went sideways doesn’t mean I can’t trust you.
  • What you need to change?